Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus
(Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1Pet.1:17-21; Lk.24:13-35)
In today’s Gospel, two grieving disciples are walking to Emmaus, 11 kilometres from Jerusalem. They are depressed and confused because Jesus Christ has died. They simply cannot comprehend it.
A mysterious stranger then joins them on their walk. It’s Jesus himself, but they don’t recognise him. As they journey together, he listens to them and interprets what has happened through the Scriptures. And when they reach Emmaus, they invite the stranger to join them for supper.
This meal is the subject of Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Supper at Emmaus, which he painted in Rome in 1601, at the age of 30.
The Supper at Emmaus (1601) by Caravaggio. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons
Caravaggio shows Jesus sitting at table with two disciples. He takes the bread, says the blessing and breaks it, and then he gives it to them. Just as they recognize Jesus, he vanishes from their sight.
Why do they recognise him? It’s because Jesus repeats the action he performed at the Last Supper (Lk.22:19), and they are utterly astonished. It’s this emotion that Caravaggio tries to capture in this painting. [i]
Now, notice that Jesus is unusually clean-shaven and fresh-faced, while his robes hide the wounds from his crucifixion. This might explain why they didn’t recognise him.
But Caravaggio could also be saying something to us here, for how often are we unaware and unthankful when Jesus journeys with us?
Standing next to Jesus is the unshaven innkeeper, who doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.
On the right, Cleopas is so shocked to see Jesus that he flings his arms wide like a cross. The scallop shell he’s wearing indicates that he’s a pilgrim ‘on his way,’ just like us all. We’re all pilgrims in this life. [ii]
To the left is the unnamed disciple, with a torn sleeve. Could he be Cleopas’ son, Simeon? He, too, is shocked to discover Jesus. He’s gripping his chair and just about to spring to his feet.
On the table, the roast chicken symbolises Christ as the sacrificial victim. And teetering precariously on the front edge of the table is a fruit-basket. This points to the significance of Christ’s apparition, because if death is no longer absolute, then all our earthly expectations are no longer secure. [iii]
The basket itself represents the riches of Holy Scripture, and the fruits therein symbolise the nourishing teachings of the Old and New Testaments. [iv]
The fresh fruit also symbolises new life, but notice that the apple is starting to rot; this reminds us of the sin of Adam and Eve. Behind the apple is a pomegranate, split open. In Judaism, the pomegranate symbolises righteousness, as the ‘613 seeds’ are said to correspond to the 613 commandments of the Torah. But the pomegranate also symbolises the richness of the promised land (Deut. 8:8), and of the Church, where many are united as one.
Now, do you see the piece of cane sticking out from the fruit basket? It’s casting the shadow of a fish, symbolising Jesus and his ministry. It also reminds us of his call to his disciples to be ‘fishers of men.’
There’s so much for us to reflect on in this painting, but one important thing to note is that this is no ordinary table. It’s actually an altar, and what Caravaggio is depicting here is the very first Mass after Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, Jesus is celebrating the Holy Eucharist himself.
The grapes allude to consecrated wine and Christ’s blood spilt during his passion and crucifixion. And on the left is a trio of bread, water and a jug of wine, the three central elements of the Holy Eucharist which Jesus consecrates at every Mass.
And notice that as Jesus blesses the bread, his hand is pointing towards us. He’s inviting us to join him at the empty space in front.
Notice, too, the white prayer shawl on Cleopas’ lap, tied in a knot. This indicates his absolute commitment to the faith, and today we’re all being invited to share that same faith.
Finally, this painting reminds us that right from the very beginning, after Jesus’ resurrection, many people struggled to believe or understand what had happened – even those who personally knew Jesus. However, they did come to believe because Jesus revealed himself to them. He revealed himself to Mary Magdalene (Jn.20:14), to Peter (Lk.24:34), and to these two disciples in Emmaus, among many others. And he did so through the power of the Holy Spirit, through Scripture and through the sacraments, including the Holy Eucharist.
It’s no different today. Many people still struggle to believe or understand what happened all those years ago. But through the power of the Spirit, through Scripture and through the Holy Eucharist and all the sacraments, Jesus continues to reveal himself to us.
Our challenge is to believe and to always remain open to Jesus.
[i] John S Dixon, The Christian Year in Painting, Art/Books, London, 2018:136.
[ii] Op cit. p.137.
[iii] Sr Wendy Beckett, Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-Loved Paintings, SPCK, London. 2019:72.
[iv] Silvia Malaguzzi, Food and Feasting in Art, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2008:222-223.